Category Archives: reflections

Reflective Practice Tokyo into this academic year, Meeting #9

Thursday is the longest day. And yet, somehow today I had all the energy I needed to make it – three classes, each demanding a different focus of my awareness, different vibe to match and adjust to. Writing *semi* individual comments with feedback to each group. And then, a meeting of our Reflective Practice Tokyo group, after a three-month long break. And yet instead of being exhausted, I am typing up this post at 11 pm. Enjoy.

*****

My plan for the meeting was loosely outlined like this:

What’s important in the beginning of the term? Individual notes on pieces of paper, throw in one bag. Draw and comment, hear ideas.

Choose some, write an episode related (from recent weeks), talk to partners. LISTEN.

ELC (Experiential Learning Cycle) back to work.

As it goes, I overdid it with the plan. The first task on the list turned out to be plenty, more than enough. The group members were so amazing with their contributions, the important things so varied and yet so inter-related, the experiences and stories so vivid that we talked and talked and talked, until it was suddenly time to leave. And I would leave it at that, as I’ve done for months, but I feel this acute need to blog and I honestly don’t want to be so perfectionist about my writing and the timing and topic anymore…

So here’s the full list of important things that the six of us at this group meeting came up with. As I was typing it up, I was fascinated to see the variety of “zones” of significance for each of us, and how our current state in the similar (or completely same!) teaching context(s)  is reflected in our current priorities. I wonder if anything from that list speaks to you, too.

– balancing commitments;
– figuring out the feel/community of each of my class (what’s the culture, what’s the story);
– L1 use, comfortable atmosphere, expectations;
– thinking about how to reflect on teaching;
– getting ideas for activities;
– building routines/ learner training;
– risk, play, comfort;
– understanding the wider context of the course (not just lesson by lesson);
– rediscovering what I’m doing (a process that works, techniques vs self-conscious reflction);
– building relationships/ a connection with students;
– making students feel comfortable (in/with the course and with each other);
– see/set a goal and/or agenda for the time of the term (outside of this teaching context, for example articles, conferences, RP meetings, bigger professional goals);
– working on a strongly unified curriculum;
– getting enough sleep;
– remembering students’ names and breaking the ice;
– expectations; significance of the course beyond the classroom; philosophy;
– atmosphere.

I was quite intrigued to see that almost all of the notes were different. As I was walking home, I couldn’t help but think how important it is to listen and hear what others have to say. The thing is, if I feel strongly about a certain aspect of teaching, I feel like my vision gets blurred and many other things will be overlooked, because the focus is elsewhere. I miss out on something else that’s important. For example, I’ve recently grown very passionate about the role of relationships and connections we form in our job, as well as the crucial value and importance of a teacher (brought about and fuelled by Sarah Mercer’s work and talks, including her recent plenary at IATEFL 2017 in Glasgow). I want to talk about this, read about this, bring this view into discussions whenever there is a chance… But being so “aggressive” about one thing probably distorts my perception of the other aspects of my job…?

A Buddhist idea came to mind then, that people believe their opinions are so important and cling to them so fiercely… yet opinions change, so it really is almost a waste of mental effort. I wish I remembered this more often.

So that’s where our reflective discussion (followed by somewhat reflexive thought) is leaving me at the end of the day. This time, and almost every time – be more open. Listen and hear. Distance from my own opinion – but that’s the hardest one.

*****

Last week, as I was meeting 107 students that I am teaching this term for the first time, I said in my introduction that I like writing and one of my dreams is to write a book and/or write a column. After saying this outloud a few times to different groups, I started feeling like a hypocrite – in truth, I haven’t written in ages. There’s always a show to watch, a mandala to colour, a sketchbook page to fill, – and always a book to read. While all those have become increasingly important in my life and bring me a lot of joy, I deserted my one true passion. Writing always used to make me feel on edge, in a good sense. And caused many sleepless nights to my life, which I miss.

I know I am in a different place now. But maybe I can lower the bar and just write some.

Thanks for reading.

(and here I found the exact quote)

quote-we-cling-to-our-own-point-of-view-as-though-everything-depended-on-it-yet-our-opinions-have-no-zhuangzi-204496

Tagged , , , , , ,

Dialogic journaling. Part 1, notes.

I would write about why I am not blogging anymore and how guilty that makes me feel deep inside. I would write how every day I choose other, less painful and effort-demanding hobbies. I would write how I keep finding ways to escape doing writing of any sort. I would make a good case for support and understanding (“We’ve all been there, hitting that writer’s block”). I can easily picture myself writing that.

Instead, for what it’s worth, I will use this space to help me consolidate my ideas for another semester project paper. Purely practical reason, a writing I can’t delay any longer.

This past semester I had to identify “an issue” in one of my classes and keep a reflective journal registering my observations and/or any changes I brought about regarding it. I wanted to experiment with the format and try a dialogic journal. Every Friday after the lesson with the group in question I would write an entry in a Google doc. Then my colleague, co-creator of Reflective Practice Tokyo group and friend Matt Turner (known as a TEFLologist to some of you) would read my notes and leave his questions in relation to what I’d written before. Since for my article I need to make sense of the 20+ pages of that document, I will write two blog posts trying to sift through to the bottom. Mostly copy-paste from that Google doc, with a few comments from now in italics, here and there.

 

***** PART 1.  MY NOTES. *****

Some time in early October, the beginning of the term.

Goals for semester 2 project should be related to my teaching beliefs from the previous project (do I act on that? how?)

  • More reflective dialogue with students, among students
  • Micro-writing (for reflection and/or self/peer assessment)
  • Nurturing a community
  • Attention to individual students

Focus of my journaling will be ***** class. The class has multiple issues that make it challenging for me to feel comfortable teaching this group. Group dynamics, low level, low motivation, individual students’ problematic areas, lack of active response to teacher instructions and to teacher in general, etc. It seems like a perfect chance to apply the ideas from my teaching beliefs stated above. Nurturing a community seems a priority. A community that would ensure mutual support and understanding. A community responsive to each other and to the teacher. —> I need to think of ways to reach that level through (a) attention and help to individual students; (b) dialogue with students through micro-writing? (c) class reflections. My concerns: too many concerns in that class, too many issues that I want to “fix”.

 

General issues that seemed like “issues” and prompted the journaling in the first place:

  • Slow to understand instructions for activities; sometimes have to stop Presentation stage in the middle of their “discussion” time to explain the task again or model with a student;
  • The use of Japanese in the first 2 classes was overwhelming;
  • Uneven in terms of English level;
  • In group discussions – limited interactions (very few follow-up questions, weak communication skills in general);
  • Need constant clear reminders of the goals (to use the function language, for example);
  • Need more time for practice and prep activities;
  • Don’t greet each other as enter the room, nor chat;
  • Take time to figure out tasks and even interpret discussion questions – seem lost and don’t ask me for help;
  • Don’t look at me unless I ask them to, sometimes multiple times.

 

Measures I noted down as possibly helpful/necessary:

  • Help them in discussion time as needed;
  • Short fluency (2-1.5-1 instead of 3-2-1);
  • Set simple clear goals in the beginning of class, get back to them at the end;
  • Reduce instructional TTT to a minimum – have them DO more and help in the process;
  • Increase attention to individual students;
  • Provide clear structure;
  • Work on checking understanding (communication skill we practise as part of the course);
  • Focus of the day;
  • Be firm about Japanese use;
  • Find a wake-up activity for the beginning of class (always a slow torture!);
  • One step at a time, don’t overload;
  • Slower pace, change certain tasks from regular classes.

 

A selection of my own entries, written once a week on the day of the lesson. I can be diligent as needed.

*** Lesson 4 ***

Lesson goals on the board – speak 100% English and be interactive (drew a scheme of an interactive discussion, with a mess of arrows and questions). Got too wordy/passionate explaining that. Sometimes spoke when some students were not looking at me. Felt frustrated to have to call their names and ask them to look at me. Did that A LOT in the first half of class.

For the Deep End (presentation of target language) they did not start their discussion for a minute, looked at me and did not know what to do, so I had to stop and model the discussion with Sean. Then just explained the phrases.

There were 6 students present, so group discussions consisted of three people. By the end of class the students grew more responsive to me. At the end of the lesson asked them to write on sticky notes what was easy and difficult today in class.

Easy: only two people discussion; good reactions; speak in pairs; discussion with Brian, very interesting; talk about ways to learn English; talk with classmate, use communication skills. Difficult: giving different viewpoints; giving opinions; group discussion; ask questions; group discussion.

Important note to self: remember to always ask your students.

 

*** Lesson 5, Discussion Test, October (here I introduced a structure for the entries, that I followed till the end of the project) ***

What happened (my action, their action)

I didn’t make any changes to my original lesson plan and had students have a pair discussion (5 min) before a longer group discussion 1 with the same question. As I could hear, they were doing a fine job and discussed different viewpoints. Before discussion 1, I brought their attention to the fact that they each should ask at least 5 questions (and wrote them on the board). In group discussions, they almost never used reactions and didn’t ask many questions. We did a raise of hands on the questions asked. I opted out of doing a self-check so this was it for feedback.

Right before discussion 2 I asked everyone to stand up and sit down only after giving me 3 reactions they would use in the next discussion. In both the following discussion and especially in the test everyone did great with reactions, to the point of exaggerating and causing laughter. Most students did well on the questions in the test as well. When students were discussing in Japanese which questions to choose for the test, they seemed comfortable with each other (laughing). Nobody spoke Japanese during the test.

I try to remember to speak less and clearer. But after I explained to the second test group that they can take their time to choose good questions for the test, Lisa asked Tanya in Japanese what was it they were doing (I assume).

How we felt about it (my emotions, speculation about their emotional response)

I felt we’re warming up to each other (all). Especially so when we did reactions standing. They felt more relaxed. I’m never sure if Lisa understands what I’m saying and I don’t know how to check (when it’s not the task). I feel I should start speaking activities for them as soon as possible. Cut my talking and explanation time to an absolute minimum. But then how do I connect, get through to them in that case?…on a personal level. I mostly felt good in this class and about them, too. It took them longer to do things, but they were/seemed to be less confused than usual.

What does all that mean? (speculation about the causes)

It seems like recognizing by themselves what they are doing and not doing (through, say, counting) is helpful (when they see the evidence). Probably self-check sheets are not as helpful. A short, different kind of activity to lighten up the mood is helpful for the good class atmosphere, too (like with reactions). Their recent success with not speaking Japanese transferred into today’s class, so performance maybe was so good for that reason. That makes me think that they should have a feeling of SUCCESS. And 1-2 clearly and easily achievable goals for each class. But they are not the same for all of them, these goals, so setting the goals on the board for everyone maybe is not such a good idea…

What comes out of it? (ideas for future changes based on this class)

  1. 1 goal for all, 1 personal (give out sticky notes?)
  2. Short, different kind of activity in FB time to illustrate the point and practice straight away; no ticking the boxes in self-check sheets
  3. Stats – count something (that matters at this particular lesson).

 

*** Lesson 7, November ***

What happened (my action, their action)

In other classes I start the lesson by asking students if they checked any media in the morning and what they saw there and also share my own story. In this class I decided not to do this – on second thought, I should have done that. They could benefit from starting to talk from the very beginning of class. Other than that, I did not really change my lesson plan nor did they have any struggles! They were reasonably active and engaged in discussions, didn’t use Japanese! In fact, they performed really well and followed instructions straight away for almost every task. <…> At the end of class, I asked them to write easy and difficult points about the class again. One “bad point” Lisa’s discussion group mentioned in feedback was “slow discussion.” <…> I can notice that the dynamic of a group discussion, even if it is just 3 people, is significantly different from pair work. Slower and confused, indecisive as to who speaks and when.

How we felt about it (my emotions, speculation about their emotional response)

I never noticed or thought today that this class is “problematic.” When there was some confusion, I interfered and helped as possible. They figured out what to do quite quickly today and there was a nice feeling in the air, friendly and respectful.

What does all that mean? (speculation about the causes)

Some factors I’m thinking about:

  • Ken (the confused guy from last class) was absent;
  • I wasn’t scared of their failure (or rather did not expect it);
  • Function language was clearly presented on the board as a dialogue.

What comes out of it? (ideas for future changes based on this class)

  • Activate schemata for the lesson – by asking them questions or asking them to discuss some questions related to fluency and lesson topic.
  • Include group work for stages other than group discussion (for example, Practice).
  • Structure the discussion flow more clearly, especially the beginning.
  • Write their good language on the board!! They often referred to the board today, where the key language was written.
  • Think about the “slow discussion” – together??

 

*** Lesson 8, November ***

  • Before the bell I tried to talk to them (“How are you?” for the most part). Lisa said she was genki, and in general there was some positive energy. Even though it was as quiet as ever before the bell.
  • Next step was having them do the functions review. I said, “You can discuss and try to remember together” – nobody discussed, everyone worked individually.
  • One more interesting point about Lisa today: the student she’s most likely to talk  to in Japanese is Kim. Today in fluency she reminded him to speak English when he switched to Japanese. The same thing happened in discussion later.

How we felt about it (my emotions, speculation about their emotional response)

I felt relaxed in today’s class, for a change. There still was the same confusion as ever, but I didn’t react so negatively to it. It didn’t stress me out. There was some energy in this class, and even though discussions were slow, I talked to them about their strong points (many questions!!!) and weird points, HONESTLY, and we could laugh together.
What does all that mean? (speculation about the causes)

  • Coming to class ready for “something challenging or different” changes perspective.
  • I wonder if I was more scared of them than they were of speaking English.

 

*** Lesson 10, December ***

During fluency, the speakers were completely silent for a long time. Same was true for the Presentation (30 seconds in silence), so I came up to each group and asked “What’s your opinion about this topic?” <…> They started with “I don’t know” but then slowly got the energy and spoke about America and Sweden. <…> As the class progressed, they could start the activities quicker.

How we felt about it (my emotions, speculation about their emotional response)

I felt relaxed for the most part. When they were silent, I just waited and realized that I didn’t feel as frustrated as before. They need more time to start. <…> Students seemed more on board with the lesson flow, even if confused at times, mostly at the beginning of class and at the beginning of tasks.

What comes out of it? (ideas for future changes based on this class)

Starting the timer does not mean start of discussion in this group. They take it as a start to organize themselves. So maybe…(1) We should clarify together what we’re going to discuss now and how we go about it (prompt them to the first few questions in discussion flow); (2) Start the timer when they actually start their discussions.

 

*** Lesson 11, December ***

Target language presentation created a big confusion. One group for 1 minute looked at the handout and in Japanese said the names of the people in the picture there. I came up and drew their attention to the question to discuss and asked, “What’s your opinion, Haley?” – but nothing happened after that. Finally, Sean began talking. In the end, I didn’t use the timer in the presentation at all, but rather waited for them to get where I wanted them to get… For the practice stage, again I gave them more time than planned originally.  

How we felt about it (my emotions, speculation about their emotional response)

It was a very energetic class, we felt comfortable and laughed and understood each other (even if they didn’t always understand the task!…). They listened to me more, looked at me when I was talking, engaged with me, responded when I elicited ideas from them. At the same time they were still confused in the first part of class, often confirming with each other. My current thought – what is wrong with them confirming with each other?? They are obviously more comfortable with each other than before. Isn’t it what I wanted?

What does all that mean? (speculation about the causes)

I can’t wrap my head around the reasons for their repeated confusion over tasks in the presentation and practice stages (which, honestly, resemble one another from class to class)… Do you have any ideas?….

 

*****

That’s what I asked Matt, my helpful journal companion. In my next post you can read quite a few of his questions based on the notes you’ve probably just read above. What a long post!.. And no conclusions drawn… I hope you don’t feel like you’ve wasted your time reading it, and I will secretly hope that some day somebody can find this post useful, whichever way that may be. If you have any questions or comments, please do leave them below.

Bottom line: I don’t feel like I’ve wasted my time on the beach. On the contrary, I finally feel the burden slightly lifted. The tugboat is at work now, slowly picking up speed.

Thank you for reading – and always supporting me.

tugboat and barge

 

Tagged , , , ,

#JALT2016. Notes on the highlights.

Sarah Mercer and Relational Pedagogy

  • Sarah Mercer feels passionate about the importance of the teacher. I feel passionate about it, too.  She also says our well-being comes first. I believe in this, too.
  • When we praise some students in front of the whole class, what are the implicit messages for all other students of that class?
  • Sarah shared the VIA classification of character strengths and I am most thankful to her for that. For one thing, I’m glad the classification, the list already exists. And then this:

Each one of us possess all 24 of the VIA character strengths in varying degrees making up our own unique profiles.

That means all of our students possess those strengths. That said, my most challenging class this semester, which also happens to be the main subject of my journaling, gets another angle to look at. What makes each of those 8 students special? How can I build up on their particular strengths? And then we could start feeling better about our time together in class, maybe.

  • Sarah shared some research which showed that teacher-student relationship is 11th out of 138 most influential factors for learning. Isn’t it quite important, then? Doesn’t it mean that we should invest in this relationship more – notice it, care about it, talk about it, work on it?…
  • Then there was this idea. Just as being around positive, happy people might make you feel happier and more positive, the opposite is also true. The vicious cycle of disengagement:

dsc_2565

And since WE are the adults in our relationships with students (well, when we are), it is up to US to take the effort to start the positive relationship. Ultimately, it is good for US as what we do, the way we do it, will travel that loop and come back amplified.

  • Offer choice no matter how limited.
  • What qualities are important for people in relationships? she asked us. The one that immediately came to my mind was reciprocity. Sarah’s list included that, and also appreciation, equality, empathy, mutual respect, trust, feeling comfortble together, and more… So logic suggests these same qualities should be nurtured between students and teachers, too, as ours is a social relationship just as important, as we’ve seen.

 

John Fanselow and iTDi

  • How many people you know and/or communicate with who are NOT teachers or former students? Talk to non-educators about what is important in their jobs and lives. Take in what they say and relate.
  • “I don’t consider what I do my work,” he said. I share the feeling.
  • Ask your students – What would be great to have in your class and in your classroom? What could make the class better? Quite possibly they have some ideas.
  • Ask them also  – What annoys you about this class? And makes it a pleasant experience?
  • Question everything – How is what you’re doing good? How is it not good? What are the alternative options? Along the same lines… I might think, “it’s a good idea!”… But what if it’s not?…
  • And finally, this: Textbooks leave out the one important skill, which is emotional development.

 

There was much more about JALT, and as usual the most important and memorable was about the people. About our emotional relationships. That’s what stays for me, conference after conference, and likely class after class for our learners, too.

 

Thinking of all the people this past weekend… we hugged, talked, laughed, took pictures, worked in pairs in workshops, shared meals and drinks, shared plans, presented together, tweeted together, learnt together, got tired, felt ignorant and/or knowledgeable together, played games like young learners do, helped each other out… Then we were sad to said goodbye. And now we’re here, at the end of this blogpost.

If you’ve never been to a conference, I hope you do go. I hope you’ll keep an open mind and welcome connections that will flow your way, and then I hope you’ll feel the way I do.

 

As ever, thank you for reading.

 

 

 

 

Tagged , , , , , , ,

Articulated beliefs

“Methods are of little interest” 

L.G. Kelly

I entered my current job with what could be called an average (for an English teacher in Russia) academic background – 5 years at an English Philology department of a pedagogical university – and approximately ten years of teaching experience. In those years, I taught in a variety of classrooms, from General English courses in a small private comprehensive school to an ESP course for Physics majors at a renowned Russian university. Yet, in that range of contexts, over the years, I did not deliberately consider the principles of Communicative Language Teaching when planning my classes. What I did in the classroom was not determined by any particular methodologies but rather by course goals, suggested materials (in the more rigidly structured workplaces that I had to work), and, more recently and importantly, by my students’ needs.

Were I to discuss the “best” ways to teach, I would state without hesitation that these ways, if they even exist, are not wisdoms encapsulated in methods. In fact, methods are nothing without contexts and the teachers and students that constitute these individual contexts. In this way, I am ready to confess that my teaching has been, knowingly or unknowingly, method-free. My teaching beliefs do not originate in methods but rather have developed from my own experience learning foreign languages, from my teaching experience, from professional discussions with colleagues teaching English in various contexts in different countries, and from attending and presenting at ELT conferences.

Below I would like to introduce and comment in a little more detail on the teaching beliefs about learning languages that I value the most, hold true, and attempt to apply, in this or that form, in my lessons. 

  • Language learning should be centered in human nature. Language learning, above all, is a social activity. The people in a classroom are the most significant elements to the learning and teaching that takes place and their interaction determines the quality of classroom experiences. The emotional “bridge” of a connection between students and a teacher, the rapport that is gradually and mutually established, both students’ and teacher’s motivation and involvement in learning process and class activities – these are top priorities and necessary conditions underlying successful learning environments.
  • A language classroom should have plenty of room for flexibility and spontaneity. I see language as more than an entity encompassing combinations of vocabulary chunks and grammar structures, but rather as our interaction with the world in real time. Dogme as sort of a teaching philosophy, in which the central idea is teaching from students’ emergent needs and limiting the reliance on ready-made materials, has been one of the most beneficial influences on my teaching style for the past four years in all of my classrooms.  
  • Writing is a necessary, even crucial skill in language learning. Writing helps and reinforces speaking as it provides sufficient time and focus for organizing thoughts, structuring language both in form and content. Overall, consistent and varied writing experience improves language learning in aspects other than writing itself.
  • Language learning should be a conscious, reflective process and it is a teacher’s job to equip learners with tools for reflection, such as portfolios, learning logs of different types, a chance to co-construct a syllabus, etc. Students need to be aware of what they are doing for their learning in and out of the classroom and why, as well as consider the ways to improve their learning experience and results. Reflection in a systematic way may ensure progress and consistently high levels of motivation.

It might be argued that a few of the aforementioned beliefs could lead to somewhat unstructured classes in which it would be an additional challenge for both a teacher and students to chart progress. While this has sometimes been the case, I have always managed to find balance, remain on track, or adjust initial study plans. I consider myself fortunate to have taught in working environments that allowed me, to a large extent, to practice what I preach and experiment with new ideas. Consequently, my view of language learning as a social, emotionally engaging process that benefits from being, in a sense, unsystematic was confirmed time and again through positive feedback from my students.

During the FEELTA-AsiaTEFL conference held in Vladivostok in July 2016, in his presentation “What drives your classroom teaching?” Dr. Philip Chappell suggested a framework for interrogating teaching beliefs for all practicing teachers. His studies have shown that what teachers believe to be true about language learning and teaching and what teachers really do in class can either converge or diverge. For me in my current position, the dramatic change that this new teaching context brought about for my behavior in class makes more transparent than ever the converging and especially diverging nature of my current teaching practices and my own beliefs. For the sake of clarity, I will classify the beliefs I’ll be talking about into the following three types:

  • converging beliefs – previously held principles that match with my current teaching practice;
  • diverging beliefs – previously held principles that clash with my current teaching practice;
  • emerging beliefs – principles that arose from my current teaching practice.

Converging Beliefs

Language learning should be a conscious, reflective process. From the first lesson in my new job, I could see the significance and potential of using suggested self-assessment lists. The idea of allocating time during class for students to make a reflective pause, analyze their performance, and set their personal goals for the next stage in class (or future lessons) accordingly appealed to me. For every lesson in the term I was using my own variation of a self-check list with every group of students, redesigning it as needed, and developing it to suit my students’ needs as I saw them. New versions of self-check lists incorporated more than the original ticking of the boxes for the used target language: the reflection included gap-fills to assess their own strengths and weaknesses, questions to ask and answer in pairs, and questions to reflect on group discussion performance.

Although the implementation of this way of self-assessment has proven to be quite effective with the majority of students, in the future I would like to bring this reflection to a new level by experimenting with a more extended reflective dialogue. It might include open-ended questions for student-student discussion and/or micro-writing reflective activities for a teacher-student dialogue.

Diverging Beliefs

Language learning should be centered in human nature. In his book “50 Ways to Be a Better Teacher: Professional Development Techniques” Chris Mares suggests that “…we should not only be sensitive to each student in their individuality and entirety, but we should also treat the class as a community that requires nurturing. In this way, the teacher is an integral part of a shared experience, rather than simply a director of activities… Last semester, for what could be the first time in my teaching career I felt very strongly like a director of activities. This “director” leads students through the stages of any given lesson towards expected results step by step, task by task, without an odd minute to pause, breathe, acknowledge the people in the classroom, their moods, needs, real-life problems, and their possible impact on the performance. By the middle of the term I realized that I had failed to establish the quality of rapport that would be satisfactory and in accordance with the expectations that I have of myself as a teacher. A relationship between a class and a teacher takes time to develop (especially so here in Japan, to my observations), but with the rigid plan to stick to at all costs, the very notion and necessity of building a relationship slipped from the area of my priorities, which had quite a negative emotional influence on me. In the first half of the semester there was a significant shift of focus for me, both intentionally and unconsciously, from the people in the classroom to the plan to follow to the letter, from the learning that was taking place to the plan I was/am to follow to the letter. In the next semester I plan to pay more deliberate attention to the process of building and nurturing a community with every group of students that I teach. I will try to remember to communicate more openly and willingly. I will try to remember to acknowledge my students as individuals to empathize and connect with, not merely as recipients of instruction, no matter how student-centered it is.    

Emerging Beliefs

Consistency breeds success. The idea that for most teachers must come as a self-evident matter of course was quite a powerful realization for me: language learners benefit greatly from learning with consistency, learning within a clear system. I have mentioned before that one of the ways my personal teaching beliefs affected my teaching practice in the past was a rather fluid, unstructured, emergent nature of the courses I taught. Last semester, teaching in the *very structured* way I had not taught before, I could observe a tangible, huge improvement most students made in meeting the course goals, and I was convinced.   

While I still hold on to my firm belief that methods are secondary in the success on the path of learning a foreign language, the past four months of teaching gave me an important opportunity to reconsider my beliefs by “doing it another way.” It has certainly been a most eye-opening experience to teach against and in spite of ingrained beliefs. Such an experience, as I have learnt, can be liberating given the right attitude and perspective. Beliefs are not or do not have to be postulates rigidly regulating our teaching behavior and choices for the whole length of our careers. In fact, a lot more can be learnt from the exact opposite context of what we are accustomed to than from persisting in teaching the same way for years on end.

*****

Thank you for making your way through this article to the end. What you’ve read is about 73% (also slightly edited) of my self-reflection “paper” that I was preparing myself for writing in the previous blog post. It was not easy to identify those beliefs but I can recommend anyone to sit down and do so.

And I am thinking now… it is true that we as teachers should be open to change and learning what we can from it. But we should also stay true to who we are, no matter what conditions we find ourselves working in.

Thank you for reading.

 

 

 

Tagged , ,

What Clark (school) taught me.

It’s time to stop whining about not having the time to write and just make this time. It’s time to stop worrying so much about not being in good shape (was I, ever?..) for a long, thoughtful and well thought through piece of writing. It’s a perfect night for nighttime paragraph blogging, and maybe I can be back in the saddle.

*****

It’ll be a month in a few days since I’ve been working in a university in Tokyo, which, when I come to think of it, is exactly the kind of job I aspired to do in Japan in the first place. Actually, this job so far looks even better than what I could expect, but that could be too soon to say, or an entirely different post anyway. This paragraph is about what a year in a Japanese high school taught me, and here goes:

  1. I shouldn’t expect myself to miraculously connect with the students in a different country/culture simply because I seem to do so quite easily back home. It took me around four months to establish and feel their trust. In those first months I was desperate, angry, frustrated, and scared. I couldn’t adjust my teaching style so easily, I had to let go of some of my beliefs, I had to open up myself and be sincere.
  2. I realized instructions matter. I think I no longer mumble and ramble over what’s got to be done, expecting students to “be smart and get it”.
  3. I realized students do not necessarily understand whatever it is I am saying. It can be unfair to assume they should easily all do so.
  4. Working true Japanese style, namely doing morning, evening, and 3-hour monthly meetings, requires stamina annd patience. I seem to have those. But then I don’t have the energy to read the blogs, or write myself. I feel drained.
  5. No matter how wildly you may believe that TOEIC and other exam scores focus is detrimental to learning, students will stay aimed at those. They will ask for practice and exercises and more worksheets, and it’s not their fault. That’s not even what they believe to be right, but rather the system they have to get through.
  6. Working with people requires soft skills that I found out I need to have developed. It’s not an easy ride even with the best of intentions.
  7.  I possess character traits that I am ot proud of. I can get too forceful with my opinions, too direct, snappy, or even careless with my remarks. While I’m trying to hold these off and watch my act, it’s both painful and good to recognize my flaws. I think with this increased awareness, I am getting better at communicating. It is a process though, and I’m sorry for the times I might’ve hurt people on the way.
  8. I remember a conversation I had with my friend Kevin Stein a while ago, before I moved to Japan. He’d been a high school teacher for some time and I’d been a university teacher for 5 years. We discussed how different these jobs are in terms of emotional connection to students they offer. My students only saw me maximum twice a week, and most often for one semester only. No matter how much we enjoyed our classes, it seems like we all knew I’m just another teacher, one out of dozens they get to meet through their years at the uni. It seemed to have struck Kevin that the bond between me and my students, due to the very nature of a university class, was  so weak. And I could not picture what kind of other bond he meant. Now I do. I cried when my high school kids went on stage to get their graduation diplomas. I cried and felt terrible to tell other students that I’d not be teaching them anymore. Being around these kids every single day just flipped the whole teaching experience for me, turning it into one of extreme emotional vulnerabilty as it approached the imminent logical ending.
  9. Cultural differences play such a big role in a classroom, and I have to get familiar with them as much as possible before I go and teach. An example off the top of my head is silence in response to my questions, or the challenge that spelling poses.

There certainly are more, many more things that Clark (school) taught me, but this blog post is already too long. Thanks for reading and I hope to give you a reason to return here soon.

I’d like to express my sincere gratitude to whatever is in charge of all the good luck I’ve had for giving me a most amazing boss in my school. Were it not for Peter, his constant assistance, understanding and great attitude, I might be less positive about all the things Clark (school) taught me. Thank you, Peter, you will never be forgotten. =)

 

Tagged , , ,

New is the old forgotten. The coursebook.

Back in the sweltering (even if somewhat less so) heat of Tokyo, there is an urge to publish something. Jet lag is still on with all its effects, paired with a cold, which naturaly prevents one from typing anything new from the drafts. I know there have been blog posts, discussions, comments on the topic of coursebooks recently, so I guess coursebook is the word.
That’s why I decided to share something on the topic that I wrote 18 months ago for the TeachingEnglish Blog (original here), unedited but with my sidenotes below. Revisiting it now, when my teaching situation has changed so dramatically, looks worth a post on a lazy summer day.

*****
Coursebook is a promise.

Many times I’ve heard teachers say “Look! These new coursebooks are so good. I don’t understand why our students are not thrilled to open them, marvel at colourful pictures on these glossy pages, soak up every task and exercise! I wish I were a student myself and had to study with this textbook on my desk.”

There’s something slightly unhealthy and even obsessive about the relationships of English language teachers and bookstores. I’ve been in this team buying up armfuls of hot-off-the-press books for classroom use myself for many years. Undoubtedly, a coursebook is more than its content, clear layout, friendly guidance, and those nice on the touch pages that teachers cannot resist. A coursebook is always a promise. Every NEW(!) version of a coursebook is always a promise of something better, of something more.

A NEW Coursebook has better CD recordings.
A NEW Coursebook has authentic dialogues in many more accents.
A NEW Coursebook has a NEW e-book.
A NEW Coursebook has a DVD with a set of videos selected for each topic, and maybe even extras.
A NEW Coursebook offers a broad-minded view on many issues.
A NEW Coursebook comes together with a helpful grammar guide.
A NEW Coursebook Teacher’s Guide supplies plentiful extra ideas and photocopiable worksheets.

An app to accompany the next NEW Coursebook would be great. And surely more, much more to come to fulfill the ongoing, reassuring promise of a coursebook.

Coursebook is change.

This story sends us back to my years of working in a small private school on the outskirts of Moscow. At that time around 50 pupils constituted the whole body of those who I and my colleague, my university groupmate at that time as well, got to teach. The story in a nutshell would be us setting a goal to change over for the “foreign” coursebooks for the children in that school. I’ve recently shared in my blog the full story of this brave endeavor we took on, so I’ll just say it was successful and change that happened was greeted with support from parents and lively enthusiasm from children. At that point we managed to break away from an outdated methodology, pervasive in the textbooks, omnipresent in the libraries.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but my guess is that the majority of Russian people who have ever learnt or taught English in the recent 50 years know a handful of English language coursebooks with mentions of “comrades” in the texts. These have gone through several editions in the years of the new history of our country, but even now, buying books from Russian publishing houses one can still feel a subtle scent of that unexciting for language teachers past. Books in a library in one renowned university look sad and still very much Soviet, even if they were published in the 90s or this past decade. To students, who learn English reading about the adventures of some professor Ivanov accompanied by grammar and vocabulary exercises that follow his gripping experiences, these books are no harm. Rather an explicable reason for snarky comments and general sneering. To some teachers, who have to use the afore-mentioned adventures to teach the changing and ever transforming language, these books may cause frustration. Indeed, flipping through the yellow faded pages one can see any coursebook of a modern format, design and style as a very welcome change.

No coursebook is liberation, choice and effort.

I don’t teach with a coursebook and I haven’t for quite a while. Luckily, I’m in no situation when I’m pressed to blindly follow a particular one. There’s some good sense present in the places where I teach, which I’m really thankful for. Interestingly, adult students that I get to teach exhibit a similar kind of common sense… and maybe even more than that. It won’t be an exaggeration from my part to say that not a single adult student I’ve had in my class in the recent 3 years wanted to have coursebook based classes. I don’t have to look more than 4 days back for another example of this attitude. The student I just started teaching last week in his expectations for the course ahead expressed and clearly argumented his position. He doesn’t see the use of a coursebook necessary, but at the same time he wants to be aware of the steps we’re going to take, be able to track his progress, and have a balanced language diet regarding topics and activity types. This attitude and precise understanding of goals resonate with my own view of teaching I’m most comfortable with. So, once our students are so aware of their needs, isn’t it time for teachers to be getting more flexible and let our teacher selves off the hook of that coursebook we have so comfortably got used to?

It’s quite true that I’ve developed a certain apprehension towards being imposed with a rigid system of any sort. For me coursebook-less teaching is a selfish conscious choice. It’s a challenge, it’s a continuing mental activity, it’s a practical reason to be observant, it’s an excuse to be always in search for learning opportunities. It is simply more attractive for my *active* mind. Coursebook-less teaching certainly adds hours of preparation, but in another, more enjoyable and creative way. It teaches me to react to the world around me. It forces me to be looking deeper into my students’ learning, analyze it and always be ready to adapt. Teaching from my students’ needs, negotiated, immediate and emergent, allows me to have the whole weight of responsibility for my class and share it with my students.

I don’t feel knowledgeable or in any way “expert” to give tips and advice on how, why and what you should be doing in your classroom with your students. As long as it’s clear in your own mind why you’re doing this or that, how materials you use impact learning and get reflection in the actual progress your students make, I strongly believe you know better.

*****

Obviously, context dictates its rules, which you abide by, find loopholes in, adjust, or disregard completely, vent and rebel against. With the transition I made (am making) came new reality of facing textbooks, not the first time but over again. One term of school year being over, I feel ready to share my thoughts and impressions about teaching students both with and without a prescribed coursebook.

1. Out of the eight types of classes I teach, three follow a given syllabus. The coursebooks (two levels of Go for it! and Engage) were absolutely new to me so at first I was excited to look at how they differ from the titles that are commonly used in Russia. I found them at times more ridiculous and cluttered than I’d known coursebooks to be, inconsistent, too. I can’t think of a reason why “salsa” should be given as a unit vocabulary item for music genres to modern Japanese teenagers, no offence to salsa lovers. Anyway, none of that came as a shocker. As I tried to find my way around those pages to make sure my students would learn the material in a natural and somewhat enjoyable way, I doubted my choices so many times. It suddenly got hard to link lessons and make it a flow, even though coursebooks are supposed to make it exactly easier, right? More importantly, I felt the weight of responsibility for the students to be learning (as opposed to covering) certain things within a certain number of classes, but that amount is just not enough. Some students cannot possibly cope. An unsurprising, chronic problem a teacher faces again and again. Bottomline: I was rarely sure last term my students went out of class with a solid piece of learning.

2. Out of the eight types of classes I teach, two are the courses I design myself – Culture course and Social Media course, with an emphasis on safety and privacy issues. I am lucky to be given absolute (within common sense) freedom as to which materials to use and how to structure the courses. No coursebooks are involved in those classes, and that is still both liberating AND demanding at the same time. The responsibility is there, and tripled by the fact that what students are exposed to in our very limited classtime ultimately comes down to what I, as a teacher, see right. We can approach the same material from different angles, do more in-depth work on improving our writing skills, devote time to error analysis and correction, notice weaknesses/ strengths/ points of interest and modify the rough syllabus I have prepared. All this time I should be careful we don’t overdo and overdrag it. This whole process of working together to help the course emerge is challenging but it brings so much colour to my routine. By writing lesson summaries in our Google Doc we keep track of lesson topic progression and development. I think students trust me to make the decisions that would ensure they are learning something new and relevant every class, that I will do my best to make our time meaningful. I hope.

When talking about the use or uselessness of coursebooks, I want to remember to put students themselves into the picture. That, in fact, should be true about anything we discuss that concerns teaching. I will put myself in this picture now, because I can. As a mostly unsuccessful student of Japanese, but one owning a couple of black-and-white coursebooks, I can admit that the realization that you have a book and structure *of whatever sense and quality* to guide you is reassuring. The initial interest and excitement, though, do not progress smoothly into actual learning time, for me personally. In other words, I like having a book, but learning with it is a chore I am trying to avoid.

By no means is mine an example to lean on to in making judgements and conclusions. This post is also going to lack a logical wrap-up. Thanks for reading.

Tagged

It will get better, it always does.

***** Part 1. Frustration. *****

  1. Write.

  2. Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.

  3. Finish what you’re writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.

 

This is the procedure I haven’t been through for quite some time, at least in a way I would find satisfying, for the writing I would consider coming from my heart. And I want to know why, because it is devastating to my soul and literally makes me feel sick. In these months, everytime I traced a thought worth being expanded in a post, I opened the blog and saved the notes, or more often the title, in a draft. I then stared at the blank screen of the new post, blankly. The right word would not be found. One word would not follow another. My mind would drift away, unwilling to witness the shrinking of self-esteem. For whatever excuses my mind would gratify me with, paragraphs would simply not form. This fact undoubtedly adds to my adjustment to living in Japan, and by “adds” I mean aggravates it. Writing in the staff room is not possible as I cannot hear my thoughts. Writing at home is not happening as I am exhausted of the heat and mental pressure of the day, so all I can force myself to do is mindless cooking, watching endless shows on ororo.tv, or colouring mandalas. Considering my *ridiculous* dream to one day wake up a regular contributor to a magazine, a columnist, and/ or eventually a writer, the situation I’ve landed in, well, in one word, sucks.

WRITE. The word keeps ringing in my head. It is unbearable as I know I will suffer through the process and with every minute I will spend racking my brains for words, I will hate myself more and more.

 

***** Part 2. Drowning. *****

The term is over, students are gone, school is empty, my day at work is anything I make of it. So I started reading, as I see it one of the major reasons why my wrtitng does not tick anymore. First, I got back to reading The Tale That Wags but I can only read at home in the comfort of my bed, which seems to be the most welcoming area in my apartment. At work I turned to reading the blog posts I missed, the iTDi Blog issues, and the brainpickings. A more thorough look through my Facebook feed led me to this page. Reading Malcolm Gladwell’s essays got me all warmed up inside once again, as I returned to imagining my own writing on the digital pages of The New Yorker some day. Laugh all you can and scoff at the daring, one can dream.

The most extraordinary, shocking thing happened- I realized my eyes slip line over line, not concentrating, drifting further and further away, hands clasping mobile phone suddenly and unnecessarily. What is happening??! Reading brings about just as much pain as writing. Trying to balance the unbalanced, reading to revive writing, I ended up drowning.

 

***** Part 3. Questionable wisdoms. *****

Desperate in my search for reasons I fall through with my attempts to write successfully in Japan, one click after another and I found myself on this page, where Stephen King details everything one needs to know to write successfully. So here’s what disturbed me:

 

4. Remove every extraneous word

You want to get up on a soapbox and preach? Fine. Get one and try your local park. You want to write for money? Get to the point. And if you remove all the excess garbage and discover you can’t find the point, tear up what you wrote and start all over again . . . or try something new.

5. Never look at a reference book while doing a first draft

You want to write a story? Fine. Put away your dictionary, your encyclopedias, your World Almanac, and your thesaurus. Better yet, throw your thesaurus into the wastebasket. The only things creepier than a thesaurus are those little paperbacks college students too lazy to read the assigned novels buy around exam time. Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule. You think you might have misspelled a word? O.K., so here is your choice: either look it up in the dictionary, thereby making sure you have it right – and breaking your train of thought and the writer’s trance in the bargain – or just spell it phonetically and correct it later. Why not? Did you think it was going to go somewhere? And if you need to know the largest city in Brazil and you find you don’t have it in your head, why not write in Miami, or Cleveland? You can check it … but later. When you sit down to write, write. Don’t do anything else except go to the bathroom, and only do that if it absolutely cannot be put off.

 

The questions I asked myself and found my answers unsettling:

Would my writing have a point after the excess garbage is removed?

Would I “impress” anyone (most importantly myself) should I choose to not look for better, more suitable words in thesaurus?

Will I ever be content with my vocabulary?

What’s my problem with sitting down to write and just writing?

Why is it that my brain hates me so these days?

 

***** Concluding complaints thoughts. *****

I feel hurt by my own self. Not same as guilty, but causing myself true pain – all because I can’t seem to do what my whole being craves. I struggle to transform my daily classroom and life experiences into letters and words on page.

I feel jealous of people blogging incessantly. I feel down I cannot find the right words.

I keep losing faith in myself.

I am not publishing this post to attract attention or fish for head-patting. I am not finding more excuses, rather spilling the heart and pain in it (which is real and tangible) on the page, in no hopes it cures or magically causes catharsis.

It is so different now, and while I’ve certainly settled down in my routine both at home and at work, this one aspect is my daily torture. I do not clear the bar I set myself.

 

Yeah, it will get better.

 

Thanks for reading.

Tagged , , ,

37 days of my new life

It’s a fact tried and true that time can fly past fast. You can only experience once the anxiety, frustration, liberation and thrill of moving into a different country to start a new life of your own from scratch. While I am contemplating whether I’m through with this period or not quite yet, here are the 37 notes I’ve made in these 37 days of my new life. In no particular order they cover my observations, musings, questions, experiences, assumptions and whatnots. Enjoy.

 

*****

1. I enjoy my walk to work and part of it is through a narrow street along the train tracks. The little street is all bars on top of karaoke places squeezed between restaurants offering Japanese, American, Indian, Turkish, Burmese and other types of food. On Monday it is easy to say where a bar is as there’s vomit next to an entrance on the road.

2. On with the theme of parties, I am amazed at how abruptly the Japanese stop to have fun, be loud, clink glasses and laugh when hanging out. When it happened at the official school welcoming party, I was taken aback – a round of clapping following the Japanese tradition, and we suddenly, very responsibly were done with the fun and gone. What takes Russians literally hours and drags them into the early hours no matter what day next day is, is efficiently a matter of 5 minutes here.

3 The Japanese people are organized and disciplined, there’s a minute-to-minute instruction and guidance for any type of action. Any event is scheduled to the minute.

4. Patterns of social interaction here are amazing to me, in how radically behaviour changes depending on the situation and people involved in it.

5. I love train tracks up there with the view of the roofs. The feeling of space and sky is more tangible in Seoul if I were to compare, but even in Tokyo it is still true and still breathtaking for me.

6. I can’t brush off the feeling that the Japanese are easily thrown off their emotional balance (or easier than me?..). Examples are due here, in later posts.

7. From what I’ve seen so far, these people seem to be great at managing people, with announcements, directions and instructions.

8. It’s been over a month since the school year started and we haven’t yet begun proper classes. It was new and somewhat baffling to me at first, but now I see the point of spending the first month in activities, home rooms, meetings, events, school trips and such. Getting students interact outside their natural little groups, in and between grades seems like a wise thing to do for these teenagers. And, to be honest, for freshly recruited teachers.

9. I still don’t know why on out-of-school-campus events students are not allowed to go to convenience stores or buy water from vending machines.

10. Kids wave to (or almost at) you saying hello and goodbye. That could very well be from the modest distance of 1 meter away from you. By “you” I might actually mean foreign teachers…

11. This must be a silly thing to be excited about and devote a whole point in my culture notes to, but the fact that change at supermarket registers comes out of the machine automatically after the cashier drops your money into a hole was pretty fascinating to me.

12. Thank you for waiting. Please wait for a while. So said the announcement on the train from the airoport to my station last Wednesday, the last evening of the Golden Week. An unexpected problem… Cause: passenger injury. I hadn’t experienced it on my way yet and I didn’t know then that “a while” would take two hours. To my amazement, there was absolutely no, positively zero sighing, swearing or grumbling from my fellow travellers.

13. I must confess there’s no great love for cooking in me, expect for cases when I want to try out an interesting (and simple!) dish or treat my family and friends. Other than that, I never thought of myself as of the cooking type. However, this past month I did manage to learn and enjoy cooking udon soup, yakiudon, chicken curry, fried squid, omuraisu, mentaiko spaghetti and some dish with tofu and Japanese spinach that I don’t know the name of. I’m getting a fresh perspective on my culinary abilities (and thanking friends, Google and absence of my mother in this apartment).=)

14. I have experienced the Silent Classroom.

15. With a few prominent exceptions, the voices of my students when in a class and speaking are so quiet that I find it hard to make out what they are saying even when I’m bending over them or kneeling beside. That adds to my general embarrassment and confusion when adjusting to the Japanese pronunciation of English sounds.

16. Linguistic landscapes being the recent buzz and my personal long-time interest, here are a few of the images I’ve taken around Tokyo.

IMG_7004

IMG_7130

IMG_7188

IMG_7336

IMG_7372

IMG_7375

IMG_7454

IMG_7532

17. Whether you are at work or in a shop or hanging out, cuteness is never too far. Kawaii is the word that applies (or, more accurately, is applied) to nearly any imaginable thing, person or action. This part of the world is cute.

IMG_7894

18. I have long stopped paying special attention to people wearing masks, but I still have an urge to ask my students, when and if the rapport is good, why exactly they would wear them in a language class. I have heard a view that many teenagers stick to their masks as they are embarrassed about their faces.

19. It’s the first time in my whole 9 years in this profession that I actually spend 8 hours a day 5 days a week with colleagues. The learning for me exceeds the teaching so far.

20. At the end of April I had a unique opportunity that my job offers – a full day of training with John Fanselow. I have just finished my third online course with him through iTDi (speak of addiction..), and that face-to-face time was truly special. There’s still a blog post to be put together from the many pages of my hand-written notes… Some day then.

21. I’ll never regret getting emotional on a beach in South Korea on a nice October day in 2014, which led me to writing this post. The beaches in Osaka and Kobe took my breath away in an almost similar way. They reminded me of where my heart wants me to be.

22. The little time spent with friends in Kansai area took my breath away just as much and reminded me that I am not alone, even if I often feel like I am.

23. I whined in my previous post about the language frustrations that brought me down in the first week here in Tokyo. Truth be told, I’m still affected by that undoubtedly exaggerated shock I got in a bank, and it manifests itself in that I resort to the simplest words and phrases I already know again and again. My learning has been sparse and unworthy of mention. I find comfort in making excuses of the first month being the hard adjustment period. Sad as it is, there is truth to the fact that language and culture immersion do not equal language learning. But I already knew that)

24. In November of this year I’ll be presenting for the third time at JALT conference in Shizuoka! This is exciting because JALT is more than just a regular conference for me, it is anything but regular. It is one of the reasons why I am here where I am. 

25. Ueno Zoo is a wonderful zoo and I’ll be visiting it over and over.

26. One Saturday I went grocery shopping in my neighbourhood. As I was on my way home, loaded with 5 heavy bags and leek sticking out happily from one of them, a few elderly Japanese ladies came up to me and asked (in Japanese) what I assumed to be “Where’s the bus stop here?”. I smiled and shrugged my shoulders, they smiled,excused themselves and asked a Japanese lady standing at the traffic lights next to me. The moral of this story is that grocery shopping makes you look like a knowledgeable local, even if you’re so obviously a gaijin as I happen to be.

27. For the first time in my life I faced a classroom of 40 teenagers.

28. No public wifi is still depressing to me. A few times I’ve tried, in what I take to be a Russian way, to guess the password to a network at a place, but failed were my attempts.

29. I wish I could get myself a Snoopy credit card.

30. Working from 8.30 to 5 is, as I mentioned above, new and challenging. I know I can and will make it, as so many people around the world in this and other jobs do, but I admit it is hard.

31. One of the exciting things at work I’ve done so far is suggesting writing journals to some of the students. Three girls have already shown interest and handed in their *cute* notebooks with first letters to me! I’m going to spread this initiative around to other groups of students.

32. One of the two special courses that I’ll be teaching at my school is Culture Studies course. Originally designed to focus at the Russian and Japanese cultural phenomena, it now looks more appealing to me to open it up and include any cultures outside Japan. We’ll be looking for partners to do cultural exchange projects on the blog that is yet to be created, so if you teach teenagers and think this experience could be up your/ their alley – please let me know!

33. The other one is the Social Media course centered around privacy and safety issues, so critical in Japan. A short pre-course activity showed to me the startling truth that ALL students feel insecure in social networks (all being 99 out of 100), but all the same use them extensively. I only hope I’ll do a good job and by the end of the year the percentage will be different.

34. Messages that I regularly recieve from my family, friends and former students from back home are heart-warming. Thank you, it means a lot to me especially now.

35. Belorussian restaurant “Minsk” in Roppongi is run by lovely and friendly Belorussian ladies. I’m going to buy frozen (Belo)Russian food there (they promised pelmeni and cabbage rolls aka golubtsy soon!).

36. I like my new life and I’m working on adjusting to what’s new and unusual. I have found myself to be flexble enough.

37. I wish I had the energy back to write more often… It makes me happy to put my thought and heart in this post, finish it now and publish.

 

Thanks for reading.

Tagged , ,

On the courage of losing sight of the shore (or lack of such)

10856621_10153179024543695_8452947408000280810_o

 

So I’ve moved to Japan, like I dreamed to, like I made it my Goal to, like I planned to. Yes dreams do come true once you stop thinking of them as of dreams. Now it’s time to find out how it feels to have made your dream come true, how to live that dream. That’s what they don’t prepare you for. How to remember why you aspired for this in the first place.

And if you can ever get close to regretting your choice of dream.

————————————————————————————————————————

Inspirational quotes tell us in powerful phrasing to be strong and aim high, yet they don’t mention how many tears there would be shed after you’ve made it. Because that’s where and when you’re most fragile. Having a goal you believe in and smashing everything on your way towards it (or taking each and every step with care and due precision) is like running your distance. As you cross that long-awaited finish line, you’re thrilled but out of breath and your heart aches. Well mine does.

It’s all good to have the courage to lose sight of the shore, yet in order to actually cross that ocean you need more than just that. You need all that courage to keep going all the way you have so bravely planned, plus a whole lot of other supplies.

 

*****

The following part of the post was typed at various times during my first days in Japan – in the street, on the metro, at my workplace (more about that in future posts).

 

***** First day things *****

As soon as I’m out in the street or even better on the subway, I start smiling involuntarily. That’s when I remember what I loved about this country in the first place and why I’ve come here at all.
Everything around me so far seems right and close to heart, like I got to know it and knew it to be. Streets, neat houses, pavements, cleanliness, small private businesses, trains with their warm seats that make you drowsy any time of day, people who I’m not afraid to address for help, shop windows, little details I pay attention to, like a bronze owl placed on top of a very ordinary tiled column at a metro station. The language that I want so much to learn as soon as possible so that I could belong to this place more. Because I want to.
It is now more home-like in my apartment thanks to the things I brought from home, but it’s cold and lonely.
***** First week frustrations *****
When the initial shock of being away and alone wore off a bit and with the day spent at school, for a couple of days life got down to almost normal. However, Friday brought me back to tears in a new way. Frustrations that came out were about me not being able to communicate in Japanese. For the first time out of all my time in Japan I felt an alien, clearly an outcast.
In a nutshell, I went to a bank to open an account but the lady refused to deal with me because I could not speak the language. She kept repeating the same thing over and over again and it just did not help – besides, I got stuck, paralyzed and couldn’t utter a word in Japanese, or English, or even Russian. My face must have looked dumb and eyes welled up with tears. When I was out in the fresh air and about 3 minutes passed, I knew it was all fair. I am a foreigner, they don’t have to speak English, I should have taken care of this communication issue myself as opening a bank account means you need to discuss important points and security. I felt low for the rest of the day and it even rubbed off on my English as I felt unconfident while talking with colleagues.
This unpleasant situation made me feel sorry for students who struggle understanding English in class if it’s the only language spoken by teacher. I’m sure I’ll have more to say about it in my future posts, as soon as I get into an actual classroom and lessons begin.
*****
I would like to thank all those people who have wished me luck, supported me and keep doing so with their good words in public comments or private messages. I appreciate it ever so much. I would like to give a mostly useless but 100% sincere digital hug to the people who tell me they know it must be a hard time. It is.
Bottomline: a week and many tears past, I don’t regret my choice of dream yet.
IMG_6948
Thanks for reading.
Tagged , , , ,

13 things that happened in class, excuses provided

With a headache piercing savagely and incessantly through my brain, I’m commuting home. It’s stuffy and stinky in this metro car. I wish I could just close my eyes and enjoy the blank space of an empty mind, but images, scenes and conversations that took place today keep flashing by. The 5 ninety-minute classes I’ve given today provide enough food for thought, as any teaching day would.  This particular long teaching day has come to its end with the following thoughts:

1) I held a whole class in Russian. I gave instructions in Russian, gave comments in Russian, allowed conversations in Russian.

Excuse: the level of the group is very low, much lower than the material that has to be taught expects them to be. The majority of students struggle (and I mean it, struggle) with recognizing spoken English, even the easiest English of instructions. The conversations that I mentioned above were 95% around the language issues we were dealing with.

2) I did not explicitly check homework I’d assigned.

Excuse: I saw half the class were unprepared and today I didn’t feel like having an uncomfortable “strict teacher – lazy student” type of talk. We partially covered the homework material in the lesson itself.

3) I let the shy students sit through the class without uttering a word in whole 90 minutes.

Excuse: The energetic students “seized” the lesson space (see point 11).

4) I let grammar mistakes slip off my students’ tongues and go uncommented or corrected.

Excuse: Point 11. Some mistakes were made and quite a few times corrected on the spot by most active and confident students. Other times I took notes of points to pay their attention to later, but the lack of board, white or black, for that class (as we were studying in a corridor) imposed certain restrictions on my teaching. As the conversation drifted off and away from my grasp, my chance to voice out the comments from my notebook was missed (and, frankly speaking, plain forgotten).

5) I played an audio file which was way too hard for students.

Excuse (and a comment): Without a specific task, I played the file “for the gist”, with an idea in mind to acquaint them with the podcast I’d long wanted to recommend. Previously they’d expressed interest in the idea of using podcasts for autonomous learning in their free time (their level being positively upper intermediate). My belief was (is?) that by demonstrating a tool/ activity/ learning opportunity in class you increase chances that students will actually pick it up and try by themselves. However, today we learnt that these very students are, in fact, not excited about any podcast-type, pure listening kind of language input. Three minutes was enough to put people to sleep. Video is the way to go, they say. One more important factor: the class was held in late evening, after a full working day, so unsurprisingly concentration levels could be at their lowest (both students’ and teacher’s).

6) My mind fell blank when students inquired for certain words and ways to express their idea. Multiple times.

Excuse: Not a native speaker or a walking dictionary. Some days memory lets me down badly, much worse than it normally would. And of course the right word/ phrase lights up my brain on the way home, several hours after the moment of need.

7) I was late for class.

Excuse: Traffic jam.

8) I spoke too much and offered too much of my own personal commentary.

Excuse: I want to be part of conversation in my class, especially so when I have something to add and/or believe students will learn from what I say (either new info or new language). Students looked interested, reacted positively, asked for more info, added own relevant comments.

9) I did not use a warm-up activity.

Excuse: It did not suit every class I’d planned.

10) I did not monitor group activity effectively.

Excuse: See point 11. Also, by midday my headache had got stronger and I had to limit my own movement (aka sit on a chair)) so as to survive through the remaining classes. So I trusted my students to manage themselves and each other.

11) I let students take control over the lesson and followed their lead.

Excuse: They were active, they were willing to share and participate, while I felt uncomfortable to interrupt their genuine desire to speak English with their groupmates (and teacher) during an English class because I had it differently in my plan.

12) Students did not move from their seats.

Excuse: Come to think of it, in two out of 5 classes they did.

13) I was sarcastic.

Excuse (?): Notably less sarcastic than I was 2 years ago, as I now pay more attention to my commentary.

Time to finish the list now. A teaching day, once brought down to pieces like this, could drive an exhausted and sensitive teacher to a depressed state. Tonight I wanted to write about a long, hard day of a non-exemplary teacher giving not exemplary classes. Reading the points I jotted down a couple of hours ago in the metro, I come to a helpful (?) realization that some of these could actually be recurrent issues for me.

I know my eye is twitching by the end of the day. I’m emotionally squeezed out and exhausted so much that I can’t bear the simplest verbal communication. I worship silence and bask in it now, yet it’s true that 5 times today, for 90 minutes at a time, I was 100% present with the people in that class, gave them all emotion (and material) I could.

I know one can always do more and better, especially better. Still I’m wondering if on an average day doing just enough could be enough, for learning and teaching to happen. And be reason enough for a teacher to not beat herself up. Whatever rules, patterns or guidelines it is that I failed to follow today, I refuse to believe it was a bad teaching day.

Thanks for reading.

*****

I’ve just now read this post by Sophia Khan about an observed class, which was described as a synonym of waste by the observer, and all the eye-opening outcomes of that experience for the teacher in question. If my classes today had been observed, the verdict would have certainly been some stronger “northern” slang word. Yes, every class is an amazing opportunity to develop something. I’m grateful to Sophia for her post as it’s just what I need today, or these days: a clear picture of what happens in other classes and how. I don’t remember feeling that low in professional confidence in a long while. Sabbaticals have their faults.

Tagged , , ,